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How a bill to fight homophobia has polarised Italy and sparked a culture war

By Andrea Carlo
People take part in the annual Pride march, in Milan, Italy, Saturday, June 26, 2021   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Italy has been tackling crisis after crisis over the past year, from the collapse of Giuseppe Conte’s government to the devastating effects of COVID-19.

But another topic has been making headlines and fuelling television debates – an anti-homophobia bill being discussed in parliament.

MPs passed the so-called "Zan bill" -- which aims to protect LGBT+ people, women and the disabled from violence and discrimination -- last November. But its road to getting senators' approval and becoming law has been much rockier.

The bill has sparked controversy and heated arguments. There have been protests in parliament, while the Vatican's foreign minister accused it of violating an agreement between Italy and the Holy See that protects the religious freedom of Catholics.

While the bill stalls in Italy's Senate, beyond the chamber its social implications are far-reaching, sparking what some have described as an outright culture war, pitting liberals against conservatives.

What does the bill propose to change?

The Ddl Zan (disegno di legge, or ‘draft law’) was introduced by the centre-left, Democratic Party MP after which it was named: Alessandro Zan, an LGBT rights activist, who was troubled by a rising wave of homophobic and transphobic attacks.

At present, the section of Italy’s penal code that specifically outlaws hate crimes and discrimination – or the "Mancino law", dating back to 1993 – only explicitly mentions “racial, ethnic, national or religious” motives.

The Zan bill would thus add five new categories: sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

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Acts of discrimination on such grounds could land offenders an 18-month prison sentence or a €6,000 fine. Violent crimes could attract four years of incarceration.

The bill in its current form would also serve a quasi-pedagogical purpose, alongside its more obvious aim of protecting minority groups from discrimination.

For instance, it proposes Italy recognises the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17 each year. It would be an occasion, it says, to raise awareness of the issue within public settings, such as schools.

Furthermore, it calls for the collection of data and surveys to gauge public opinion and monitor anti-LGBT discrimination in the country.

The bill, however, claims it does not purport to impinge upon free speech. In its fourth article, it states that the freedom to express personal opinions is protected, lest such views were to lend themselves to the incitement of “violent or discriminatory acts”.

Why is the bill so controversial?

As expected, the bill has been strongly supported by Alessandro Zan’s colleagues in the Democratic Party, alongside the Five Star Movement and the small, leftist parliamentary group, Free and Equal.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Matteo Salvini’s hard-right, populist League and Giorgia Meloni’s national-conservative Brothers of Italy have been its main opponents in both the lower and upper houses, voting against the bill and tabling hundreds of amendments.

Straddling the middle ground is Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia and Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva, a centrist splinter party that split from the Democrats in 2019.

It’s a delicate matter which has become grossly oversimplified, and people on both sides aren’t willing to respect each other’s opinion
Francesco Giubilei

While Italia Viva initially supported the bill in its full form in the lower house, it has since shifted its stance to one of compromise as part of a supposed effort to “assist” its passing in the Senate – a move that has generated a significant degree of controversy.

The bill has ignited a particularly incendiary debate – or a “stadium-like climate” in the words of Senate President Elisabetta Casellati – that has spilt over into public life.

The object of incessant media coverage, it has even attracted the attention and earned the support of major celebrities and influencers – most prominently, rapper Fedez and entrepreneur Chiara Ferragni, Italy’s premier power couple, who engaged in a heated social media squabble with Renzi over his proposed amendments to the bill.

Opposing the bill is a somewhat unlikely coalition of Catholics, national conservatives, and certain feminists, who criticise what they deem to be its “subjective” interpretation of gender identity – arguably the biggest bone of contention – alongside a perceived “threat” to freedom of expression and the introduction of an ‘Anti-Homophobia’ Day within institutional settings.

In response, its supporters see it as an urgent measure needed to protect the LGBT community from an increasingly hostile climate, while claiming that it poses no risk to freedom of speech.

While opinion polls suggest the bill is largely supported by the Italian public, the existence of a particularly loud and outspoken opposition both inside and outside parliament has rendered it a lightning rod for such an inflammatory public conversation.

Indeed, a quick trip to Rome’s upscale Parioli district will reveal anti-Zan bill posters lining the walls, accusing the bill of “killing freedom” and “indoctrinating children”.

Italy is a country that is imprinted with a long history of political polarisation – beginning with the cleavage between the Communists and Christian Democrats, whose ideological battles raged for decades after the war.

With LGBT issues rarely making it to the political limelight, the Zan bill has forced the Italian public to reflect on its social mores, thus arguably re-igniting a longstanding, cultural "war of values".

The case against: 'It is a form of liberticide'

In the eyes of people like Francesco Giubilei, a 29-year-old writer and president of the conservative Tatarella Foundation, the public conversation on the bill has metamorphosed into a “frightening ideological clash”, one which he sees as having produced an “inflammatory climate” that has “polarised” the public.

“It’s a delicate matter which has become grossly oversimplified, and people on both sides aren’t willing to respect each other’s opinion,” he said.

“If you criticise the Zan bill, you’ll be accused of being a homophobe – which just isn’t conducive to having a constructive debate.”

Like many others in his political camp, Giubilei opposes the Zan bill on a variety of grounds. One of these is the introduction of anti-discrimination observances and LGBT issues in school, a view which is repeatedly expressed by politicians on the right.

Salvini, speaking publicly in the Tuscan town of Cortona last Tuesday, decried what he described as the “strange theories” of gender which he claimed the bill wanted to teach children as young as “six and seven years of age”.

While decidedly more moderate in his language, Giubilei likewise expressed concern towards the prospect of such topics being tackled in the classroom.

“Gender and sex shouldn’t be discussed in school,” he said. “These are private matters, that should be dealt with by families in a home environment.”

Nevertheless, it’s the bill’s fourth article – covering freedom of expression – which Giubilei views as most concerning. He has accused it of being a form of “liberticide” and worries that its supposedly “subjective” nature could have severe repercussions.

“The real problem with the bill, were it to pass in its current form, is that if someone who is Catholic and believes in a specific set of values makes certain public affirmations, they might end up facing a judge who could rule their words as being discriminatory.” Expressing a veiled sense of mistrust towards Italy’s legal system, he quipped that “we know how justice works in Italy – which makes this even more risky”.

The case for: 'Rampant anti-LGBT hatred has crept into many parts of society'

But on the opposite end of the spectrum, journalist Simone Alliva sees talks of "liberticide" as unfounded and a red herring distracting from the main issues at hand.

“I care about the facts,” he stated. “And the parliamentary jurists who closely examined the text didn’t find any issues with its legal terminology and elucidation of specific concepts. Everything else is just chit-chat.”

Alliva himself is a prominent advocate for LGBT rights, with his penultimate book, Caccia all’omo, chronicling the experiences of abuse and vilification encountered by queer individuals throughout Italy.

He deems the bill a necessary measure. Given the raging fire of homophobic and transphobic hatred ravaging the country, the draft law is just a drop in the ocean, he said.

“What we’re witnessing [in Italy] today is an outright war, with LGBT individuals – who are insulted, ostracised, attacked, and often forced to undergo conversion ‘therapy’ – representing the main target.”

He added that “homophobes no longer feel shame, and rampant anti-LGBT hatred has crept into many parts of society. The Zan bill has ultimately revealed who is on the side of the LGBT community, and who isn’t.”

Indeed, while Italy has made great strides towards becoming a more equal and LGBT-friendly country – beginning with the legalisation of same-sex civil unions in 2016 – its record noticeably lags behind that of other West European states.

Along with Switzerland, it remains the only country in Western Europe where gay couples still cannot get married or jointly adopt, and it stands at 35th out of 49 European and Central Asian countries on ILGA’s 2021 survey assessing the situation for the LGBT community.

'It’s time trans people are properly recognised’

At the heart of the debate is the bill's definition of gender identity as something that is “perceived and displayed by [the individual]”, which has drawn criticism from social conservatives as well as certain radical feminists. But caught in the middle of such a heated debate are transgender and non-binary activists, who have emphasised the importance of having a law that protects them specifically, especially when one considers that Italy has the highest murder rate of transgender individuals in Europe.

Monica Romano, a writer, activist and the first transgender candidate for Milan’s city council, roots the controversy over the Zan bill and its definition of gender identity within the country’s broader social structure and traditions.

“We’re in the midst of a cultural battle,” she stated. “Given the patriarchal and masculinist reality within which we still live in Italy – one that is inextricably intertwined with the country’s Catholic heritage – such a bill is revolutionary, precisely because it challenges our cultural norms.”

Romano emphasised the importance of having a bill that, she hopes, will “empower transgender and non-binary individuals and make them participate more openly within political life”.

Nevertheless, her outlook is tinged with a degree of pessimism. “Ultimately, I doubt the bill will pass in its full form, with its references to gender identity,” she lamented.

At present, the bill’s future hangs in the balance. While the ideological tussle that it has prompted rages on, for many activists in the LGBT community – and especially those, like Romano, who are transgender – it represents more than a mere political battle, but one for legal and social recognition as well.

“The trans community doesn’t have much power in this country, and it faces so much violence,” Romano concluded. “It’s time now that our identity gets properly recognised.”

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